by Michæl W. Bard
©2009 Michæl W. Bard

Prologue -=- Chapter 1 -=- Chapter 2 -=- Chapter 3 -=- Chapter 4 -=- Chapter 5 -=- Chapter 6 -=- Chapter 7 -=- Chapter 8 -=- Epilogue

Home -=- #26 -=- ANTHRO #26 Stories
-= ANTHRO =-

Chapter 65
-= The Cleansing =-

   If only life were that easy.
   With only a knife, it was hard to find good wood. I eventually came across a branch knocked down by lightning. It was pine, but since there didn’t seem to be much else, I was stuck with it.
   And although food was plentiful, I had to eat an awful lot of it. Meat contains concentrated proteins; grass and leaves don’t. I ended up spending most of my day looking for and eating food. When I wasn’t eating, I ended up chewing the regurgitated cud. And none of it had any taste; the only real difference was whether it was dry or wet.
   Still I persevered.
   I stayed away from the Dineh through the spring as I worked, and the Skinwalkers avoided me. I didn’t worry about them finding my father’s cave, as his skins were useless to them unless they killed me. And I was pretty sure I’d notice if they killed me.
   Once I found the wood, shaping it was more tedious than difficult. The string was a problem, as it took me a long time to find a plant to get the fibres from. I couldn’t find any I knew from my time with the Scythians, and my childhood with the Dineh (if you could call it that) hadn’t including anything practical. I finally ended up stealing one from a Dineh by swooping in as an owl at night and grabbing one. Changing into an owl was different now, harder. It still wasn’t painful, mind you, but there seemed to be a lot more effort involved. Maybe that was due to the difference in mass?
   The arrows were far easier to make; I used flint for their heads. The quiver I ended up making from deerskin taken from an abandoned kill, likely made by a Skinwalker. There was a certain justice in that.
   In all, it wasn’t until summer that I was ready to begin my crusade.
   I didn’t want to go to one of the gatherings to watch a child become a Skinwalker. There’d be too many there, and I didn’t even want to make my presence known to a group. Too dangerous. Finding other Skinwalkers near the Dineh village would be safer and easier, hopefully. With luck, I could detect their presence before they detected me. In my wanderings to make the bow I hadn’t sensed any, but then I’d stayed away from the village. The only thing I knew they did, or at least some of them, was hiring themselves out as assassins. I was afraid to wander near the Skinwalker camp; I didn’t know how they’d react, nor yet what they’d do to express that reaction. Instead I again used my owlskin, first to store the bow I’d worked so hard on. It wasn’t easy to hold it in my claws, but I managed, and flew it up into the cave. At least it’d be dry and safe there.
   Life as an owl had its good points—flight, for instance—but there were unexpected difficulties, too. I had to eat mice and small rodents, but they never went down well. They didn’t make me sick, but I always had to force myself to swallow them. Hunts were more difficult; it was like my heart was no longer in it. But I managed. At least I needed a lot less food.
   It wasn’t until late in the summer that I finally sensed a Skinwalker. The feeling nudged me from sleep; I flew around the pine trees and followed at a discreet distance. I’m sure he sensed me, but there was no reaction. When he finally stopped near the Dineh settlement, I made note of where he was and hurried back to my father’s cave in a flurry of feathers. Still an owl, I dragged my knife and quiver full of arrows out of the cave, and fluttered down behind them holding the bow in my feet. Pecking at one wing until I drew blood, my body exploded outward and I was once again the deer centaur I’d become. Next, I armed myself, with knife and bow and all. Securing my skin around my neck, I bounded off through the woods towards my Skinwalker quarry.
   Bounding as a deer is not the same as galloping as a horse; it’s more a series of controlled leaps, over and over again. You jump, fly through the air for a moment, thud onto the ground with bent legs, forelegs first, hindlegs second, and then do it again. It’s certainly not as fast as an all-out gallop, but it has its own grace and allows far more maneuverability, which is useful in the woods. My hooves thudded into the needle-laden ground again and again, and the quiver bounced on my back against my cloak of owl feathers. I just hoped I wasn’t too late. When I was close, I slowed to a more cautious walk. My nose quivered at every scent, and my deer-like ears twisted and flicked around in all directions, listening.
   I heard two voices. then the sounds of somebody leaving. The air bore a faint whiff of human, and another scent as well: A cold scent that twisted along the ground, the aroma of death and disease. As silent as a deer I crept closer, stringing my bow and drawing an arrow. In the dappled sunlight I saw a figure—the Skinwalker. This one was a girl, maybe 14. Around her she was wrapping a wolfskin. I fired two arrows in quick succession. The first hit her in the left breast, the second pierced her heart.
   I put a third in her throat to keep her from screaming. As I walked towards her, a drift of power passed from her into me. A voice whispered in my head: Judge, jury, and executioner.
   I was more than large enough to drag her off into the forest. She had iron, flint and tinder in a pouch; I gathered fallen branches for a pyre, put her and her wolfskin on it, and burned them both. The pouch and its contents I kept for myself.
   My second kill came soon after. I was nibbling pine needles, which were getting dry and increasingly bitter. I sensed a Skinwalker nearby, and my ears focused on the sound of fluttering feathers and angrily cawing voices. I knew that there was a dead deer nearby, the scavengers had been at it. From the other scent around it, it had been the kill of a wolverine. Carefully I approached, bow at the ready. Judging by the sounds, the ravens had fled when the Skinwalker had come. No surprise, as normal animals avoided us. They certainly wouldn’t hunt us, which made my life a lot safer. Soon I saw that there was one raven that was on the corpse, pecking and tearing at the rotten meat.
   One arrow took it in the chest.
   Oblivious to the power flowing into me, I walked forward watching as the carrion bird changed, becoming a human cloaked in raven feathers. This kill, like my first, was female. As I picked her up to take her off and burn her, I saw the face.
   Doubts born of my time in the mythic Greek realm assailed me: It was my mother.
   Was I doing the right thing?
   Of course I was!
   With a snort, I heaved her body over my shoulder and walked off. Having absorbed her knowledge along with her power, I soon reached her hidden lair, an abandoned wolf den, and pulled out her other two skins. One was a wolf, and one was a deer. Odd; I hadn’t known any Skinwalkers other than myself dealt with herbivores.
   I burned all her skins.

   As summer faded into fall, kills followed one after the other. My body grew antlers, and other than learning to keep my head low so as not to get entangled in branches, I ignored them. I had a job to do. By then I was very efficient: I always wandered near the Dineh village, but not too near. I avoided the Dineh. Eventually I sensed a Skinwalker, and then it was over quickly. Most were wolves or coyotes; many were foxes. These were all easy to catch, as I was faster. Those few with bird forms, I had to sneak up on and get very close before killing. I found that the more I killed, the better I could sense them, from further away. Soon I could sense them long before they could sense me. However, by the first snowfall my kill rate was slowing. Skinwalkers were getting harder and harder to find—hopefully because I’d already killed most of them.
   There was a thin layer of snow on the ground, and food was becoming harder to find. I hadn’t sensed any Skinwalkers for almost a full moon, when I suddenly felt one nearby! Using my perfected methods, I strung my bow and silently moved towards the feeling. I heard voices and, as I generally did, ignored them. There were two, one male and one female. The female was crying, sobbing, and I started bounding towards the source. I just prayed I wouldn’t be too late!
   “Take me! Please take me!” the female voice shouted.
   “I can show you the way,” said the male.
   “I won’t go back! I won’t!”
   “Then don’t! Come with me, leave their stupid rules behind. Be free!”
   “But, but, you’re evil. You’re witches! The Shaman says so.”
   “The Shaman wants to see you raped. Why do you care what he thinks?”
   “Ahigo’s already got one wife! Why does he need me!? It’s been so horrible since he became chief.”
   “Ahigo will soon be dead .”
   I knew that name: It was Ahigo that my father had been hired to murder.
   I burst into a clearing and saw two figures crouching in the snow. One was an older man enwrapped in white wolf fur—the skinwalker. He was leaning against a tree, looking down at a young Dineh woman. She was dressed in ornamental hides, and the scent of her sadness and horror drenched my quivering nostrils. Below them were the mingled aromas of sex, blood, and rape.
   I lowered my bow, feeling snow flakes settle over my back and antlers. The man turned to face me, sweeping his wolfskin around himself.
   I put two arrows through his heart.

Chapter 66
-= Lessons =-

   “Are you all right?” I asked, my voice soft across the gently falling snow. It was barely audible over the girl’s sobbing.
   The girl forced back her sobs and spoke, or rather screamed. “Why are you protecting Ahigo!? He’s a bloodless bastard not worthy to live!”
   She pointed down at the dead skinwalker. “He would have saved me. Others would have, but you killed every single one!“
   They would have saved her? But I had saved her from the evil skinwalker. But—
   I whipped around and fled through the gently falling snow, a stubborn part of me refusing to let go the bow I’d spent so much time on.
   What had I done? The Skinwalkers were evil. Monsters! I was simply doing the Dineh a service. And yet, apparently Ahigo was a monster too. The girl had hated me. Not thanked me, hated. And I smelled no deceit on her.
   If she spoke the truth, then I’d allowed Ahigo to live. I’d allowed that girl to be raped and so horrified that she’d rather be one of the cursed Skinwalkers then remain with Ahigo.
   Plowing into a deep drift of snow, I slowed and stopped. I was in a clearing, and, through a gap in the clouds, the half moon brightly shone.
   What was I going to do?
   Then I knew what I had to do. Swallowing, I turned back the way I’d come.
   I knew where the Dineh encampment was. I needed the truth. If this Ahigo was as monstrous as the girl made him out to be, I’d kill him and damn the consequences; that would be a start to undo the wrongs I’d committed.
   I bounded through the snow towards the village.
   What, exactly, had I done?
   I’d been judge, jury, and executioner. I’d set myself up as the sole power of life and death. Had I been wrong? Was I worse than the Skinwalkers? If I was, then why had that Spider Woman helped me?
   The snow fell heavier, muffling all sound. Clouds passed in front of the moon and the forest vanished in darkness. I was forced to slow to a walk. Dimly I could scent a fire, and from that I knew where the village was. I made my way towards it in the darkness. Hearing branches sway slightly in the faint wind, I ducked beneath them. And then I saw a flickering light—a small fire for the Dineh watchers. Moving as silent as a deer, I circled around it, still moving towards the village. Still holding the bow I crossed my hands behind my back and leaned forward. I wanted to show them the silhouette of a deer, as the snow would hide everything else.
   I saw another fire off in the distance.
   Moving slower, I stopped often, nibbling at some of the bitter needles. All the time I kept moving forward.
   I heard the pair of watchers at the nearest fire, whispering to one another.
   “May the Great Spirit curse Ahigo! Nobody’s going to come tonight.”
   “Shut up! That’s witch talk!”
   The first voice spoke lower, a conspiratorial whisper; my ears swiveled to focus and still I could barely make him out. “He took my sister. You know what he’s going to do to her!”
   “He’s our chief and thus we obey him. It’s the w—” And then the voices faded to unintelligibility.
   From my time as a owl, I knew there were usually five watches equally spaced around the village. One was directly east, the others equally spaced so that none were directly west.
   The night was quiet and getting colder. The snow fell heavier, large flakes that drifted downward. The moon remained hidden.
   And then I entered the village. It was dark, but I could see dim glows around the hides that covered the entrances. The chieftain’s was the largest; it was where I remembered it had once been. The shaman’s was actually the smallest, as he made an effort to be poor and unsuccessful so the tribe wouldn’t turn on him as a witch.
   From inside the chieftain’s hogan, I heard a male voice, and then a woman’s scream.
   No time for stealth: I bounded towards it.
   I heard a slap, and then another scream.
   Skidding to a stop at the entrance, snow up to my knees, I drew an arrow.
   From inside I heard a man’s voice: “Damn you, bitch, where is she!?”
   I tore the hide off the east-facing entrance and looked in.
   There was a man there: He held a leather strap, and heat poured off his naked skin. I could smell his anger and his hatred. I could smell sex. Sprawled on the ground below him was a older woman, sobbing. Her clothes had been torn off, and bloody streaks covered her back.
   He spun around and saw me.
   I could see the hate in his eyes, the evil. I could scent his disdain. I could scent his confidence in his power.
   “Who the fuck are you!? Put that hide back, you hear me! I said I wasn’t to be disturbed!”
   I stepped, crouching, into the hogon. Then I raised my upper body to its full height; my antlers clunked against the poles holding up the roof.
   “Skinwalker! Skinwalker! Help!!” He must have recognized the owlskin around my shoulders.
   Below him, the woman screamed and started crawling to the farthest corner of the hogon in horror and terror.
   I’d let this happen. Now it was up to me to do what should have been done months ago. My first arrow took Ahigo in the chest, my second sunk in beside it. My third went through his mouth, now gurgling blood. Then I fled into the snow.
   Outside the screams behind were quieter. It was snowing harder, and the wind was rising. All around I heard movement, voices. More hides were moved aside and light fell upon me. There were screams and shouts.
   I fled bounding into the snow. A few arrows sped past me. I heard a deep voice, echoing weirdly; blue-white fire surrounded me, but didn’t kill me. The only effect was a burning at the base of my ear, and a burnt and shriveled feather falling out, the wind of my passage whipping it away.
   Soon all that was around me was the rustle of the trees in the rising wind, and the drifting snowflakes that snuck between the pines. The wind grew louder, gradually turning into a howling roar. All the while I fled through deeper and deeper snow. I’d killed what seemed to be the bad guys, and now I’d killed the bad guy. Had I done right? Had I done wrong? I didn’t know. Why hadn’t I remembered what Ephebus had done to me!?
   By dawn I was gasping for breath as the wind howled and the snow whipped around me. I’d gone higher up the mountainside and was now walking across wind blasted rock. Frozen gravel slid underhoof and I fell, and then forced myself up again. Icicles from my panting breath hung from the hairs around my muzzle. In the dim pre-dawn light I could make out a cave, or a crevice, in the rock ahead of me. My limbs heavy, I forced myself towards it, leaning into the wind. One step, another, another. My hand was frozen around the bow that had allowed me to perpetuate horror after horror. It was a dead weight. The wind shrieked around me. One step, another, another.
   And suddenly there was a blessed silence as I reached the shelter of the rock. Tiny whirlwinds swept around me, but the main blast of the wind couldn’t reach me. I collapsed onto the cold rock.

   A cold wind blew across the Sea of Grass. The grass was dry. It was dark, the sky covered with clouds. The only light was from a small fire and I could see a form sitting beside it. I walked closer to the warmth, my limbs stiff and sore. Soon I recognized the figure as Coyote, in his half-human form, sitting on the ribcage of a horse.
   Come over to the fire, Stephan. I think you’re ready to talk.
   I made my way over and gracefully lowered myself onto my deer chest. The fire popped and crackled. It was fueled by human bones.
   It’s a sad thing, Stephan, when you know what’s going to happen and you know that nothing you can do will change it. It’s at times like these that I sometimes regret what we did.
   I looked at him and then spoke, my voice haunted. “What did I do wrong?”
   You? Lots of things. The Dineh culture has a lot going for it, you know. They’re generally peaceful, and they revere many of the same things that you do. The Skinwalkers are a lot of things that you consider evil. The two groups are really opposites, and in a sense each defines the other. One is light, one is dark.
   Unfortunately, by the will of the Great Spirit, the Dineh lifestyle is very rigid: Anything not compulsory is forbidden. The course of everyone’s entire life is carved in stone, or might as well be.
   You obey the chief because he is the chief, not because of his soul.
   I closed my eyes and remembered what I’d seen in the hogon. “Ahigo was one of those without a soul, wasn’t he?”
   Coyote snorted. You could say that. A pipe appeared in his hand and he inhaled and blew out a cloud of rich blue smoke that was whipped away by the wind. Would you like some? You really should.
   I snorted. “Given my record, I’d better listen for a change.” Taking the pipe he offered, I inhaled the rich smoke into my lungs. Immediately I started coughing uncontrollably.
   As he laughed, Coyote caught the pipe before I flung it out of my hands. You should see what you look like!
   When I stopped coughing I glared at him, though I don’t think Coyote got it as I sneezed loudly. Ignoring me, he continued.
   Dineh life is quite restricted. They can’t touch a corpse, or perpetrate murder, or administer poison. The social pressures against those actions are far, far greater than they were when you were on the surface. In this realm, Dineh must obey their leaders.
   The Skinwalkers provide an exit: Skinwalkers can do everything that a Dineh can’t—which includes getting rid of soulless bastards. And that means a Skinwalker can do what needs to be done. They’re not bound by the Dineh laws and rules, so they can achieve things for the people that the Dineh are forbidden or incapable of doing.
   “That doesn’t make sense.”
   Pah! You Westerners! It’s always your way, or the wrong way! Coyote turned and looked at me and I felt my soul falling into his yellow eyes. Alexander the Great was told that the Persians should be subservient to the Greeks because they were barbarians. Not Greeks.
   You came to North America and exterminated the natives. And then, finally, you felt sorry for us. You decided to make amends. He leaned forward until his muzzle was almost against mine. You swore that you wouldn’t do it again. But you just did!
   I jerked backwards, away from his vehemence.
   Sometimes I wish the Great Spirit would just wipe you out!
   I watched as he snapped the pipe in two in his hands.
   He sighed. Stephan, Stephan. You can’t understand a culture by watching it for a few moons. Any given culture works as it is: It has to. If you’re going to change it, you’d damned well better make absolutely sure you know what you’re doing. Somehow his pipe had fixed itself; he poked it into my human chest. Keep your people from doing it.
   I turned away and watched the fire for a while as Coyote puffed on his pipe. I could feel myself getting colder but I really didn’t want to move. What did he mean by ‘my’ people? How was I supposed to know?
   You’ll have to excuse an old Coyote, Stephan. You just got under my skin. He sighed. It’s tough knowing what’s going to happen, knowing that you can’t stop it, knowing that the misery has to happen because it did happen… A bone appeared in his hand and he tossed it into the fire. Sometimes I wish I’d stayed behind like you.
   I turned to him. “What do you mean, ‘stayed behind like me’?”
   You’ll find out. Now, let’s smoke together, make peace. Then I have to send you on your way.
   “Answer my question!”
   Sorry—can’t because I don’t. He offered me the pipe. Take a puff, lighter this time, and then I’m out of here.
   I took the pipe and looked at the mouthpiece and the smoke wisping from it.
   Oh, come on! You don’t think I’d vastly enhance the bitterness again, do you? What do you take me for—Coyote or something? Sheesh! Take a puff, because then I have to send you on your way. And don’t take too long, you’re running out of time.
   I sniffed at the smoke. It certainly didn’t seem as strong. “What do you mean, I’m running out of time? You said something moons ago about my having all the time I need.”
   He chuckled. True, but your body wasn’t freezing to death back then. If I don’t send you on your way soon, you will be dead and we’ll have to start the merry-go-round all over again. Just one little puff for the old man, hm?
   Was that why I felt so cold? I put the pipe up to my lips.
   Remember, think before you act. Don’t let anger control you! Don’t act until you’re sure. The last thing we need is a retread Western blahness!
   Go and change the world, Stephan.
   I touched the pipe to my lips and inhaled a little bit. The smoke was sweet, not like last time. Slowly I blew it out of my nostrils. It was nice. I pulled in more…
   Gagging and coughing, I threw the pipe away. The smoke burned, burned my lungs, burned my mouth, burned my nostrils.
   And then the fire, the Sea of Grass, Coyote, everything vanished and I was sinking into steaming hot water.

Chapter 67
-= Coyote’s Gift =-

   I tried to move, but my limbs were cold, stiff. I could barely feel anything. My legs touched the bottom and I stopped sinking with sulphur-scented water just lapping over my deer back. The water was hot, a faint mist clung to its surface. Leaning forward, I stretched my upper body out so that it was in the water too. I had to look up to keep my nostrils above the water. Ahhhh! Gradually, life poured back into me, a glorious warmth that burned my nerves, sent tingling pain through me. But it brought me back to life.
   It had been close…
   Sighing, more or less oblivious to the stench of sulphur which wafted all around me, I let the heat bake my muscles. And once I had feeling back, I let it soothe my soreness. The water gurgled and bubbled and I just relaxed.

   I must have nodded off; the next thing I remember was jerking awake, uncomfortably hot. I was desperately panting, and the world shimmered around me. Somehow I staggered out on leaden limbs, and stood on the shore. There were a few tufts of grass in between jagged chunks of shattered rock. Water dripped from my fur, and I stepped further away from the pool to lay down and sleep again, wrapping the sodden owlskin around me, careful not to invoke its magic…

   When next I awoke, I felt much better. It was late in the day; stretching my arms, I realized that I was holding the bow I’d laboured over so hard. I must have had a grip on it all the time I was soaking, as the wood was badly warped. I never wanted to see it again! So I threw it away, whipping it high and far, and faintly heard the clatter of wood on stone. The stiff deer-leather quiver and the arrows followed. Next I pulled off the strap and scabbard of my Cretan knife, which I thought about sending after the bow and arrows… instead, I carefully drew the ornate bronze blade and looked at it.
   It was beautiful.
   Odd; I’d used it so often, but this was the first time I’d ever really looked at it. So consumed had I been in my crusading justice, I’d ignored the simple things around me… I decided to keep the knife. I’d have to make a new scabbard—the old one was a dead loss, thanks to the sulphur smell—but the knife could stay. It would be a reminder. For now, though, I’d have to keep the scabbard and strap. I hung it back over my shoulder and walked away, looking for some grass.
   Soon I realized that I was on a mountain, the ground sloping downward. Below I could see rich grasses and deciduous trees beckoning. Seeing no sign of civilization, I made my way down, carefully ignoring the outcroppings of fallen shattered rock.
   The leaves and shoots were green; so was the grass. It was all sweet and wet, though still relatively tasteless. The cud was a little better. It seemed that wherever I was now, it was spring. Shrugging, I decided to relax at least for a little bit. I’d have to figure out where I was, but first I wanted—no, needed—a couple of days to get fed, to get clean, and to get rid of the tension and the horror of what I’d been doing.
   The days passed quickly. I found a cold pool at the base of a waterfall, and soaked in it for brief periods to rinse away the sulphur that clung to me. My owlskin was also sulphur-y; I washed it a couple of times, and that seemed to do the trick. At least its magic had protected it—no water damage. Other than that, I encountered only wildlife. Deer were around, and lots of small animals.
   The deer accepted me, at least the does. The males fled—possibly because I still had my antlers. I could feel a bit of rage, but none of them was a real threat, so I had no trouble keeping my anger under control. Once a doe and her fawn let me walk right up to them. I just stood there as the fawn sniffed at me, walked around, and then nudged me. He fled, and I chased him around and around the clearing. It was wonderful! Too soon the sun set, and the doe took her child away whilst I stayed and ate, recovering from the effort.
   A week passed. Some days it rained, but I really didn’t mind. Finally I felt sated. My muscles no longer ached as I moved. My antlers were still there, and I wasn’t sure what was going to happen with them. Normally they’d fall off before the end of the year, but my body’s internal calendar was out of synch with the changing seasons… Whatever; I’d find out soon enough.
   At dusk, I walked to the edge of a small cliff and looked over the edge. All I could see was wilderness. Not sure if the Skinwalker magick would work here, I wrapped my owlskin around me… yes! I felt the magic swirl and possess me, sucking my body smaller and smaller. I felt somebody helping, a female presence—and then it was over. The world was brighter, larger. I took wing and the land spread out below me.
   Like the woods and grass, small mammals were plentiful. I had no trouble finding food, and it was much easier to kill it and eat it. Maybe I’d gotten used to it over the months.
   I flew south. Two days later, I came across a dirt road. Curious, I landed on the branch of an oak. At least now I knew that there was civilization. The road was a plain dirt track, with pools of water and mud scattered here and there from the rain the previous night. There was no sign of life. Was it time to take the skin off? Being an owl was safer, but then I realized that most traffic would be during the day when I’d be asleep. I perched on a root, and pecked and tore at my right wing until crimson blood stained the feathers. Magic swirled around me and my body grew and expanded. Wings became arms, a second pair of legs grew out, and antlers extended from my head.
   Trusting my ears and nose, I wandered near the road, but out of sight in the trees and underbrush. There I lived off the rich grass and buds. On the first day I heard nothing, and slept near the road behind a massive oak tree, cradled between its roots. On the second day I heard the sound of hooves and feet and voices. Carefully, ears flicking to focus better as the voices echoed through the trees and brush, I stepped closer to the road. Then I lay down behind a patch of brush and listened:
   “…is not the only way to glory. There is much to be said for the simple joys.” The voice was male, deep and old.
   He was answered by the voice of a young child. “But I want to be a warrior! Why do I need to know about trees?”
   “Ah, Achilles…”
   “…be wise, you must know something about all things. Give it time. Your name shall be sung through the ages, remembered for all eternity.” The older man chuckled. “But even great things start small.”
   I head the sound of feet thudding on mud. “I bet you can’t catch me!” I heard the sound of a child running.
   Carefully, I poked my muzzle through the brush until I could see the road. Into my sight came a naked child, about five, running faster than the wind. Suddenly he stopped right in front of the brush and looked at me. Before I could move, he leapt through the brush and onto me, wrapping his arms around my neck and squeezing.
   Gasping I leapt to my feet and burst through the brush just as I heard hooves clattering down the road. All that time the child clung to me squeezing tighter and tighter. Unable to breathe, I saw a centaur clattering to a stop in front of me.
   Not just any centaur, but one with the front legs of a man and the rear legs of a horse.
   A centaur I recognized.
   Coyote had sent me to my son. To Chiron.

Chapter 68
-= Prophecies =-

   I stared at Chiron as Chiron stared at me, too shocked to worry about my inability to breathe.
   Finally Chiron turned away from me towards the little human who was in the process of wringing my neck. “Achilles,” he said mildly, “that’s not a deer for you to eat. Let him go.”
   Suddenly the pressure was gone and, as I gasped for breath, Achilles dropped down and stood in front of Chiron, his head hung low in shame. “I’m… I’m sorry, Chiron. I—”
   “Achilles, the mark of a great warrior is not how many people he slays, but whom he slays. What do you think people would think of you if you walked up and stuck a spear through the king you were fighting for?”
   “I won’t do it again. I promise. Really. I swear.”
   “Like last time?” Chiron asked dryly.
   “This time I mean it! Really!”
   Chiron didn’t respond but instead turned to me. He offered me a bulging waterskin; I could smell that it was water. Taking it from him, I rose my muzzle high and let the water slide down my mouth and down my throat. Even though the waterskin was huge, I must have poured half of it down my throat before handing it back.
   Trying to speak, I instead sneezed. “Excuse me. And thank you.”
   Chiron motioned to Achilles still standing abashedly beside him, now kicking the dirt with a bare foot. “My charge is still learning. I’m Chiron, and on his behalf I apologize.”
   “I’m…” What should I say? I had so many names. No! I wasn’t going to hide anymore. “My name is Stephan.”
   Chiron looked at me as I looked at him, now that I could do other important things like breathe. He was a lot like I used to be. His skin was tanned, but free of scars and tattoos. His horse body was ivory, with black points above his hooves. His tail, hair, and mane were all the same ivory colour.
   “I thought I knew all the centaurs around. I must admit, I’ve never seen one like you.”
   “I’m not from around here.”
   Chiron snorted. “If you wish, you can come back to my cave. The least I can do is offer you a meal.”
   “I’d be honoured.”
   “Achilles!” Chiron called.
   “Yes Chiron?”
   “Go to the cave and get the fire started. We’ve a guest for dinner.”
   “Can I get a swine on the way? Can I? Huh?”
   Chiron sighed. “If you find some wild swine, you may take one. So go. We’ll be a while.”
   I broke in. “Is it all right for him to go alone?”
   Chiron laughed. “Achilles? Some days I don’t think the gods could hurt him. Of all my students, he’s certainly the toughest.”
   By then the boy was out of sight.
   I looked down the road Achilles had taken, my mind full of questions. That was Achilles; in two decades he’d try to kill me on the fields of Troy. I felt a spasm of pain between my front legs where he’d stabbed me. No, wait, was the right word ‘had’ or ‘would’? Was that—
   Chiron interrupted my thoughts. “It seems as though I should know your voice. It sounds familiar, yet I can’t place it.”
   Closing my eyes I swallowed, and scratched an itch at the top of my right leg with my right hind hoof. What was I going to tell him? Why was I afraid of telling him? “You’re the son of two centaurs like yourself. A mare named Philya, who died giving birth, and a stallion named Scylurus who may also have been known as Stephan. You were taken by Apollo and raised by him and Artemis.”
   “Apollo told me that I was the son of Chronos. Yet, why would you lie..?”
   Turning to look down the road after Achilles, I opened my eyes and my voice continued as though in a dream. “I remember your birth. You killed your mother—you were too big for her, a flaw in the biology. The storm was ending and I’d granted milk to a mare, Anarcharax, so you could suckle. Then Apollo came and he took you from me. He made me insane when I wouldn’t let him.”
   “Apollo told me that Chronos left after he planted his seed in Philyra, and she turned into a tree at the sight of me. He did say that the first beast to offer me milk was a mare.”
   “I’ve missed you so. Oh god but I’ve missed you! For so long I wanted to be with you, to meet you, to understand you. I only ever saw you once…” My voice faded to silence when I remembered that meeting. It hadn’t happened yet. How could I tell Chiron that the only time I saw him was when he began to die? And that other centaur that was with him. The one in the skin. The one Poseidon had become.
   The one that had the body and head of a deer and wore a feathered cloak.
   Chiron turned and began walking down the road and I trotted after him to follow. “I think I’d remember seeing somebody like you before,” he muttered.
   I was silent for a while as my mind raced. The prophecy played through my mind, and I could hear the Pythia chanting the words…

Around the sea, but not across
   The coin you must, twice it toss
The second time your first will be
   The first one second time will flee
When in war you first will fail
   There your gift will turn you pale
If you’d learn to do the deed
   In death the answers will be freed
It is in peace that you will take
   It’s with the sea that you will make
      And only then shall all partake

   Dear god! It finally made sense! The first time I fought Poseidon was in the fifth year of the Trojan War—that was about two decades from now. Poseidon had been at Troy much earlier, when he and Apollo built the city walls. The first stanza had always been obvious: Poseidon was the god of the sea, so I had to avoid it. The second stanza must mean that I would first face Poseidon during the war, and then I would end up in the past and face Poseidon when he was building the walls. The second time I faced him, would be the first time to Poseidon. The third stanza simply stated that to learn how to kill Poseidon I would have to die. And there, in the paleness of death, I would find the answer. It was so simple now! Chiron was immortal, yet he died. He died by giving his immortality to Prometheus. I’d been immortal. I’d died by giving my immortality to Poseidon in the future. And Poseidon would die by giving his immortality to me.
   Which left the last bit… I had no interest in killing Poseidon any more. That was in the past; what was done was done. And yet, Apollo had stated something about me freeing them. And Coyote had told me to change the world. He’d hinted that I’d had a destiny.
   What the hell was it?
   That was when I heard Chiron mutter, more to himself than to me, “Why would you lie in such an obvious way?”
   “I didn’t lie. There are reasons you don’t remember.” How could I tell him that he was going to die..?
   Or was he? I’d been with him. I would be with him again. I could keep him alive! Then another memory flashed. I’d been in the midst of the battle, I’d seen Heracles, I’d tried to stop him, but I’d pushed him so that his arrow hit Chiron.
   I could stop myself!
   Or could I? If I changed my past, what would happen to me?
   I realized that Chiron had stopped and had turned to face me. “What are those reasons?”
   “I…” What was I going to tell him. “I wish I could tell you. You wouldn’t believe me.”
   He put his hands on his waist. “Try me.”
   “I…” I couldn’t lie to my son. Bowing my head I whispered, “When I killed you.”
   “Killed? Me?” He burst out laughing. “You must have me confused with somebody else!” He turned and started trotting down the path. “Now come along, Achilles probably has supper half done by now. He’s quick and dangerous, that one.”
   I had to hurry to catch up to him. I didn’t know what to say. I’d tried to tell him the truth, but…
   The road began to climb, becoming steeper and steeper. Chiron turned off onto a narrow and winding trail which I found hard work to climb. All the way up I kept regurgitating cud and having to chew it before swallowing again. I had to keep ducking my head to keep my antlers from getting entangled. My mind was in turmoil, I didn’t know what to do. Other than stay with Chiron, keep him alive, save him from the arrow.
   It was dusk before we passed out of the dense brush around the path and into a small clearing before a cave. Light flickered from inside and I could smell roasting meat and hear the sizzle of grease dripping into flame. I could also hear the loud whacking of a stick against another stick.
   Ducking my head, I followed Chiron in, our hooves clattering on the stone. The passage opened into a large chamber which was not a cave, but a comfortable room. Hangings draped the walls and rough but well made wooden frames separated the large area into separate rooms. In one corner Achilles was beating at a wooden pole with a wooden sword. Beside the fire, on a wooden stool, sat a gorgeous woman in coarse linen dyed yellow, slowly turning a spit which suspended a skinned boar over the fire.
   “Stephan, you already know Achilles. Allow me to present my youngest daughter, Ocyrrhoe. Ocyrrhoe, this is Stephan: Achilles tried to bring him in as dinner.”
   At her father’s voice Ocyrrhoe turned and saw me. Her eyes widened and I saw that she suddenly knew her destiny. So did I—but though I knew what was going to happen, I couldn’t think of a way to stop it.
   Chiron chuckled. “Stephan here says I’m going to die.”
   For a second, horror stretched itself across Ocyrrhoe’s face, and then I saw the prophecy take her. With a cold voice she stated:

And thou, my sire, not destin’d by thy birth
To turn to dust, and mix with common earth,
How wilt thou toss, and rave, and long to dye,
And quit thy claim to immortality;
When thou shalt feel, enrag’d with inward pains,
The Hydra’s venom rankling in thy veins?
The Gods, in pity, shall contract thy date,
And give thee over to the pow’r of Fate.*

   And then Zeus’ will took hold upon her.

Chapter 69
-= Fate =-

   Achilles had spun to watch; Chiron just stood there in shock. It was I who bounded over to hold her as Zeus’ will swept through her. Laying on my deer chest I cradled her head as it stretched out into an equine muzzle. I held her, giving her what comfort I could as her body grew, turning a dark brown, almost black. All the time her eyes looked into mine, beseeching me to help but I couldn’t, and I think she knew that too. Finally she was laying there, a black mare, her lungs heaving up and down as she quivered in fear.
   For a long moment everybody remained still, until Chiron quietly asked. “What did you just do, Stephan?”
   I didn’t turn away from Ocyrrhoe, I just held her head and began petting her mane. “I didn’t do anything. Did you hear what she said?”
   “I heard.”
   “Now do you believe me?”
   “It doesn’t matter. Get out.”
   I stopped comforting Ocyrrhoe and turned my upper body and head to look at him.
   “Get out before I do something I’ll regret.”
   “Ocyrrhoe, do you need help?”
   Stephan… I see what you are now. You honour me.
   “Stephan, leave.”
   I got up and watched as Ocyrrhoe staggered up onto her hoofs. “It’s not I who did this, it was Zeus. He cursed her for telling you too much.” I started walking for the entrance.
   Behind me other hooves moved to follow me.
   “Ocyrrhoe…?” Chiron asked.
   I stopped and watched as she stopped. She was still awkward, but she was learning fast. Father, she nickered. He’s the father of my new race. I need to learn from him. On you, I’d… I’d be a burden.
   “You can’t understand her, can you?” I asked.
   Hope blossomed through Chiron’s voice. “She’s not an animal? She can be restor-?”
   “No. I’m sorry. When you’re ready to talk to her we’ll be around.”
   And then I left, with Ocyrrhoe following.
   Once outside of the cave I stopped. “You should eat. Unfortunately, grass and hay aren’t the best tasting, but it’s what you need. Are there villages nearby?”
   A couple down the mountain. Stephan, why did Chiron..?
   “He’s afraid. Possibly for the first time in his life, he’s faced with something he can’t heal. Give him a little while. Rest. He’ll want to talk to you.”
   She started eating and I ate with her. After a little bit she stopped and turned to look at me. It’s dry and bitter.
   “I know.”

   I stayed with Ocyrrhoe as we wandered the foothills. I visited the village a couple of times, and after allaying the residents’ initial fears, traded work for grain and fruits which I then offered to Ocyrrhoe upon my return. She grew used to her body, but never happy with it.
   One afternoon she asked: Why did Zeus do this?
   “I don’t know.”
   But you said that this was Zeus’ punishment. You must know something.
   “Yes, but only a little bit. I know that you were fated to tell your father his fate. And I know that would cause Zeus to transform you into a mare. Why? I think it was because you were revealing things Zeus wanted kept secret.”
   But then why transform me afterwards?
   “That’s beyond my knowledge. All I can think of is that either this was a message or warning to Chiron, or you were fated to reveal something in the future. I don’t know everything.” Though I was starting to think I knew too much. I’d heard the prophecy of Chiron’s death, and I had been confident I could keep him alive. But now..?
   You know exactly when my father’s going to die, don’t you?
   For a while I remain quiet in the shade of the trees on the mountainside. Finally I swallowed the cud I’d been chewing. “Yes.”
   And you can save him.
   I wished I could cry. “Have you heard the story of Oedipus?”
   “A prophecy has been spoken.”
   She stopped chewing and looked at me. You’re going to try anyway, aren’t you?
   “Yes. I am.”
   She went back to eating and so did I. Most of the afternoon passed in companionable silence before she nickered, Thank you.

   It wasn’t until the fall that I heard Chiron calling out for Ocyrrhoe. She galloped towards his call, and I followed afterwards at a more sedate pace. By the time I caught up, they were standing one in front of the other. It seemed that neither knew what to do.
   “Where’s Achilles?” I asked.
   Chiron sighed. “I sent him off on a quest to make a bow… father.”
   I blinked. “I wish we didn’t have to meet this way.”
   “I think I understand, now. Will you help me talk with my daughter?”
   Until the sun set I stood there, translating what Ocyrrhoe said. By the end Chiron embraced her, tears in his eyes, as she nibbled at his mane.

   Years passed as Ocyrrhoe and I lived with Chiron. The first fall my antlers did fall off, and after that I grew them each year; I guess my body had to get in tune with this world. I helped Chiron train Achilles. Although I dueled with Achilles, I never took a weapon for my own—not even a bow. One day when Achilles was almost 14, and we’d been dueling with bronze blades in a glen, he stopped and looked at me. He’d won, as usual. I was panting; his body was covered with sweat.
   “Stephan, why don’t you at least carry a bow?”
   I looked at him and licked my lips. “Achilles, a weapon is power. With it you can kill with impunity. I’ve killed far too many people, and far too many of them I killed by mistake. I don’t want to kill any more innocents.”
   “But you can tell. If they’re an enemy, you just kill them!” He swung his sword through the air with a loud whoosh.
   I sighed. “It’s not always that easy. Achilles, you’re going to kill many men. And then you’ll die. But you’ll be remembered for all time. You’ll have eternal glory. You’ll kill in war, and that’s easy.”
   “So?” He leapt into the air and spun around and his blade thunked against a tree again and again.
   I stepped over to him and grabbed his arm and held it. “Achilles, that tree is not an enemy. It’ll likely die now. You’ve broken its skin and now it’ll slowly bleed to death.”
   He looked at me. “But it’s a tree!”
   “And does that make its life any less important?”
   “Achilles. Killing is a last resort. It’s final. Once it’s done, it can’t be undone. What would you do if you saw somebody killing a woman?”
   “I’d slice my blade through him from shoulder to waist!”
   “And what if that woman was about to give birth to an abomination that would kill thousands. The man knew and was trying to stop it before it was too late.”
   “I’d kill the monster!”
   “And what about the man? He did no wrong. He was trying to do what you did. Now he’s dead.”
   “In war it’s easy. But outside of war, you have to know before you act!”
   “You always find out first, don’t you, Stephan?”
   “I wish…” Closing my eyes I swallowed, forcing calm into my voice before opening my eyes and answering. “Achilles, I’ve killed hundreds in war.” I swallowed again, my lips dry. For once I wished I had some cud to chew. “And I’ve killed far too many who were innocent. I’ve killed boyhood friends. I’ve killed others who were only doing necessary things.”
   I lowered my head to look into his eyes. “Achilles, this is very important. When you’re a man, you’ll fight on the fields before fair Illium. You’ll be the greatest hero there, even in the midst of a massive army. One day a group of centaurs will attack and you’ll fight them. Your men will kill them. Finally…” my voice started shaking as I remembered standing over Philyanax’s body with Achilles waiting to kill me. “Finally you’ll face the leader of the centaurs, a creature that is half man and half horse. He’ll be armoured all in bronze, and standing over the fallen body of a horse. You’ll fight, and at the end you’ll stick your sword into his crotch. He’ll fall, dying, and then he’ll ask you to tell him of Chiron, his son.”
   “But he can’t be Chiron’s father! You are!”
   “Achilles. He is Chiron’s father because… he’s me. You have to promise to believe him. You have to, because he’ll be telling the truth. He’ll be confused, but he’ll be telling the truth. You have to remember this.”
   “I will, Stephan.”
   “Swear to me. Swear!”
   “I will, Stephan, I will!”
   “Thank you. Remember that if you don’t, then you’ll commit a grievous crime because as he is Chiron’s father, he is, by guest right, your relative. Don’t do the crimes I’ve done. Please.”
   “I won’t, Stephan.”
   “Thank you.”
   That night Chiron helped me patch the tree with special herbs and fungi.

   Achilles left shortly after that and I spent a couple of quiet years with my son. He was admirable in almost every way. He rarely got angry, he was always patient. I learned healing from him, things I’d never even thought of. He also taught me natural history. Some of it disagreed with what I’d been taught in my human youth, but there was a surprising amount that didn’t. Ocyrrhoe, meanwhile, had taken to spending more and more time with the wild horses. The entire time I did my best to keep Chiron away from the wild centaurs. I knew they weren’t going to kill him without Heracles, but I saw no need to give accidents a chance to happen.
   Finally the moment I’d feared for so long came.
   Outside the cave a voice boomed out. “Chiron! You there!?”
   I’d only heard that voice while I was insane, but there was no way I could ever forget it: It was Heracles. Before Chiron could say a word, he stalked into the main chamber and hugged the centaur-healer so hard I’d swear a couple of ribs cracked.
   How to describe Heracles? He was a big man, almost three metres tall. His legs and arms were massive. His legs were almost half a metre in diameter, his arms close to that. His skin was tanned dark with sun and dirt. Even his face was massive, almost round, and full of life and a childlike innocence. His eyes glistened beneath the cold orbs of the lionskin that covered his hair and back.
   Finally, he let go of Chiron (who could breathe again) and turned to me. I’d been lying on a wool blanket with a cup of Chiron-brewed herbal tea, but I stood when I heard Heracles' voice.
   “And who is this?” he boomed out.
   Chiron answered. “Heracles, I’d like you to meet my father, Stephan.”
   Heracles cocked his head and looked at me. That was when I saw that he did have a bow and a quiver of arrows with him. Later I found out that he’d left his club outside.
   I knew what was on those arrows.
   Then he was in front of me hugging me like he’d hugged Chiron. The carved wooden teacup fell from my hand, and I felt my ribs creaking. “Then he’s my friend, too!” he boomed out. “I greet you, Stephan, father of Chiron!”
   Chiron burst in: “So what brings you to visit, Heracles?”
   Finally Heracles let go of me. “I was in the neighbourhood, and I thought you’d like to see your cousins.”
   “And I’ve heard of the wine that Pholus has. I’d like to try it.”
   “Chiron! You can’t go!” I screamed.
   Chiron was the first to answer. “I don’t see why not. I haven’t seen them for years; maybe they’ve learned a little.”
   Heracles turned and looked at me. “Don’t worry, little one, I’ll protect you.”
   Ignoring Heracles, I turned to Chiron. He had to understand! “Remember what Ocyrrhoe said. About the Hydra’s venom!”
   Chrion turned to look at me, his expression thoughtful. “Heracles, have you lost any arrows?”
   He patted his quiver. “Every one is here.”
   “Well, then,” Chiron asked, “what’s the danger?”
   I tried another tact. “Heracles, leave your arrows here. You won’t need them.”
   He laughed. “And not be able to protect you, little one? I’d be remiss if I didn’t have my arrows to save my best friend and his father!”
   For the first and only time in his life, lynx-eyed observer Chiron missed the obvious. The only thing I can think of is divine interference—maybe he was fated to miss the obvious, I don’t know. “Then there’s no danger. Sit down, Stephan, relax. And you, too, Heracles. Tell us all you’ve done! I’ve heard stories…”
   Regretfully, I sat down and picked up my cup. Chiron poured me some more tea from a small pot over the fire, but my mind was spinning. I knew what was going to happen. I’d been there! And nothing I tried seemed to be able to stop it…
   Plans spun through my head as Heracles told of his Twelve Tasks. Could I hide Heracles’ arrows? No. In our short acquaintance, he’d been guarding them like newborn children, and my concerns had only made him guard them more. Could I stop Chiron from going? How? Him I could subdue, but Heracles was something else again. Gradually I realized that the only hope I had was to keep an eye on them both, to make sure that the accident I’d seen didn’t happen.
   I was even willing to take the arrow, if that was what I had to do.
   We stayed up late talking—Heracles was an amazing storyteller. And with his stentorian voice, there was no way I could sleep. For the first time in ages I missed being a horse. At least a horse could pull its ears against its skull, and maybe dampen the noise a bit…
   I didn’t sleep well that night. It was late summer, and the velvet around my antlers itched. I couldn’t scrape them in the cave—years ago, Chiron had politely requested I not do that, and given the bloody mess they left I couldn’t blame him—but I was also afraid to go outside and scrape them against a tree. Even though I knew nothing was going to happen, I couldn’t make myself get up. It was like watching a train wreck in the making: I couldn’t tear myself away.
   How could I know what was going to happen and be powerless to stop it!?
   I didn’t sleep well that night.
   Heracles awoke with the sun. His voice woke Chiron up and dragged me out of my fitful slumber. I followed them outside, then bounded off to do much-needed personal business. I should have done it in the night, but how could I let the two of them out of my sight? I thought about finding Ocyrrhoe, but she was off in the valley with the wild horses. Maybe I should have left to find her, but the herd could be anywhere—it’d take too long. Instead I chose to stick with Chiron and Heracles.
   Pholus’ cave wasn’t far. Chiron and I had encountered some of the other centaurs on the slopes, but not for years. When we had, we generally ignored each other. I knew that my past self was nearby, a mad man-child, but I decided not to seek myself out; I didn’t know what would happen. Maybe I was hoping that if I didn’t look, I could believe that my past self wasn’t there… that my past self wouldn’t cause Heracles to kill Chiron.
   Along the way, Heracles shot and brought down a stag which he threw over his shoulder. Even with that delay, too soon we reached Pholus’ cave.
   “Pholus!” Heracles boomed out. “I’ve come to visit!”
   It wasn’t too long before Pholus came out. He was an elderly centaur, a light bay in colour. A scar crossed his face from cheek to forehead, and one eye was only a puckered scar. “Chiron! I haven’t talked to you in what, years?”
   Chiron responded. “I’ve come to visit. Heracles here wanted to see you.”
   Chiron shuffled a hoof. “He wants to try some of that wine of yours. You know the one.”
   Pholus crossed his arms. “No.”
   “What!?” boomed out Heracles. “Why not!? I’ve even brought meat for you.” He threw the stag to the ground with a thud. My nostrils wrinkled at the stench that rose up from it. “What’s wrong with a little wine to accompany it?”
   “It’s only for us centaurs.”
   “Pholus,” Chiron calmly stated, “Heracles is one of my pupils. Possibly my best. A little bit won’t hurt him.”
   I looked around nervously. I thought about entering the argument, but what was I going to say? Too many were fated to die this day. I didn’t know how to stop it.
   Pholus looked thoughtful for a moment. “There’s not much left. I’ve been saving it for a special occasion.”
   Maybe I could use that! “Isn’t the King of the Lapiths looking to get married?”
   “Hey Chiron,” Pholus motioned to me, “who’s he? He certainly looks odd.”
   I snorted.
   “He’s my father.”
   “I thought Chronos was? You certainly never let some of us forget,” Pholus remarked.
   “Trust me on this,” Chiron said. “Why not let Heracles here have a taste?”
   “I won’t drink it all!” Heracles burst out.
   Pholus looked around. He sighed. “Only because you ask, Chiron. Just a little. Come with me Heracles, it’s in the cave.”
   “Thanks, Pholus,” Chiron responded.
   In desperation I burst out, “Don’t! It’ll—”
   “Stephan,” Heracles boomed out, “like I said last night, I’ll keep Chiron safe. You don’t need to worry!”
   A new scent filled the air and I saw Chiron stiffen. Oddly, it didn’t affect me at all. I watched as Chiron raised a hoof and then slowly lowered it. My ears swiveled all around as I heard hoofbeats approaching us from all directions. I spun around, seeking out the source of the sounds.
   And then I saw myself.
   I just stared, oblivious to everything else. I had been impressive, and the scars added a barbaric splendor. My human front legs were thick with muscle and covered with scar tissue. I took a step towards my past self as he—‘I’?—took a step towards me…
   And then all hell broke loose.
   I heard screams from behind; shouts, curses. The centaurs were fighting over the wine! Chiron was moving away, thank the gods. Meanwhile, Heracles drew an arrow and fired it as he ran from the cave.
   Chiron wasn’t fleeing; instead, he’d found a vantage point from which he could see any casualties that might occur. A kick from another centaur had knocked one to the ground bleeding, possibly with a broken leg. Of course Chiron, never without his pouch of herbs, made his way over to the body.
   I saw my past self galloping towards Heracles, and watched as ‘I’ wrapped ‘my’ arms around Heracles and squeezed. Heracles burst out of ‘my’ grip, and I watched ‘me’ stagger to the ground.
   Knowing too much about Heracles and his rages. I spun around. Where was Chiron—there! I bounded towards him, my owlskin flapping in the wind. I skidded to a stop beside him. Chiron was kneeling, tending another wounded centaur.
   “Chiron! We have to get out of here!”
   “Just a moment, he’s hurt—”
   I turned and saw Heracles throw a centaur through the air. He drew his arrow and I saw my past self heading towards him. I knew what was going to happen; I’d been there.
   “Nooo!” I screamed as ‘I’ slammed into Heracles… at just the same moment as Heracles fired.
   And the fated arrow sped through the air and, after passing through one centaur, nicked Chiron in the leg.

Chapter 70
-= Free Will =-

   Chiron screamed… a desperate, haunting sound filled with pain and horror. I bounded over to him, stopped beside him. He’d already collapsed to his side. He looked up at me, pain stitching his face.
   “My… cave… medicine…”
   Even though I knew it was futile, I struggled to help him up—but I didn’t have the strength. “Heracles! Chiron’s hurt!”
   Behind me I heard roars and screams and neighs. And then Heracles was on the other side of Chiron from me and together we helped him to his hooves and feet. The other centaurs were fleeing, abandoning their dead. My future self—past self?—anyway, ‘I’ was nowhere to be seen; I knew that my other self had fled already.
   Somehow, Heracles and I got Chiron back to his cave. There, Heracles stood helpless while I got every herb, every infusion, every powder that Chiron asked for.
   None of them helped.
   I don’t know how Chiron kept from screaming out. Sometime during the night, Chiron collapsed into sleep and I staggered outside. I needed a drink, I needed to think. Tomorrow I’d have to find Ocyrrhoe… tell her…
   I heard heavy footsteps beside me; Heracles, of course. Who else?
   “It was one of my arrows, wasn’t it?” he said.
   He grabbed me by my shoulders and spun me around, holding me up only by his immense strength. “Why didn’t I listen to you!? Why!?
   I looked down at the ground. “Because it was Zeus’ will. He blinded you and Chiron.”
   “I’ll find a cure for him! As long as it takes!”
   I knew that there was no cure. There never would be a cure, only a release. However, I couldn’t tell Heracles that. “Let him rest. Help him tomorrow, I need to find his daughter, let her know what happened.” I sighed. “Maybe the powders aren’t strong enough. Maybe fresher ones will do it.”
   “I’ll stay with him tomorrow.”
   I slowly nodded and watched as he went back into the cave. I could hear Chiron moaning in his sleep.
   I stared up at the stars. I knew I wouldn’t be able to rest this night. Instead I slowly made my way towards a mountain stream.
   What had gone wrong? I’d spent years making sure he never saw the other centaurs, just in case! And when Heracles had finally come, I’d done everything I could to stop him, or to have the arrows left behind.
   How could I know exactly what was going to happen and be powerless to stop it?
   Could I have done more? Could I have physically restrained them—stolen Heracles’ arrows? I knew I couldn’t, but my heart didn’t believe it. Part of me still doesn’t.
   By then I’d reached the pool; I looked down and sighed before drinking. The night was quiet. I was tired, exhausted. But I knew sleep wouldn’t come. Leaning down, I drank for a long time. By the end my muzzle was just in the water without drinking. Finally I stood upright, water dripping from my lips. Again for a while I just stood there, my forehooves still in the water. Why did this have to happen? How could this have happened? I’d known what was going to happen! Exactly what was going to happen!
   Oh God, but I wished I could cry!
   Some time later, I stepped away from the pool. My owlskin was still wrapped around me—it was always wrapped around me. It never got dirty, it never got worn. I couldn’t part with it for more than a day, it was too much a part of me. Years ago I’d added a tie to it, so that it always hung around my neck, the head hanging behind me like the hood of a jacket. I invoked its magic, letting it take me, swirling around, compressing me into an owl. Then I took silent wing and started searching the valleys for Ocyrrhoe.
   By dawn I hadn’t found her, so I slept. At nightfall I took wing again. I drank only what I needed, never stopping to eat. Still, it took me two days to find her. She was with a small herd in a small valley. Most were resting; so was she. I landed amidst a few soft knickers and greetings. Even when I wore an owl’s body, they knew me. Oblivious to the pain, I tore at my wing until I drew blood and then just stood there as the magic swirled around me, into me. I grew upward, outward. When it was over, ignoring the rumbling of my stomach, I stepped over to Ocyrrhoe’s sleeping form.
   She looked so peaceful.
   “Ocyrrhoe. Wake up.”
   Her ears flickered and her tail brushed her back. An eye flicked open and she leapt to her feet before me. Stephan?
   “You need to come back home. Chiron needs you. He’s…” I couldn’t say it.
   He’s dying.
   But he can’t die.
   “You heard the words you said. You know he will die… but not right away. You need to get to him quickly, before the pain drives him mad. Go: Whatever pace you set, I’ll follow.”
   Without a word she headed off at a gallop.
   I didn’t want to go; she and Chiron deserved some time alone. But they’d need me to translate. So I bounded after her, following her up the mountainside. She only stopped once to drink, galloping or cantering the whole way. Even I had trouble keeping up. It wasn’t until the middle of the next morning that we reached the cave and were greeted by screams and moans of pain that echoed from the entrance.
   “Let me go first. Heracles is in there; he might react badly if you came in unannounced.”
   Hurry, Stephan.
   Ducking my head, I hurried in.
   The cave was dark; it took a minute for my eyes to adjust. The only light came from behind me. The place was a shambles, with cooking implements and wrecked furniture scattered about. Chiron was on the floor, covered in sweat.
   A shape moved—it was Heracles. “Thank Zeus it’s you! Nothing works!”
   “I know.”
   “He… I told him you’d come back. He mixed up something, told me only to give it to him when you came back. He said it was too strong to take continuously.”
   “I think I know what he meant. Get it, it’ll clear his head for a while. His daughter’s with me—did you know that Zeus transformed her into a horse?”
   Heracles fumbled around the ceramic bottles. One got knocked off the shelf and shattered when it hit the floor. “No… Chiron called for her… he said something, but I couldn’t make it out.”
   “Ocyrrhoe! You can come in now!”
   Behind me I heard hooves on stone and I just stood there as she pushed past me. She stopped in front of me. She stared. Her body language was stiff.
   Father? she nickered.
   “Let Heracles feed him some medicine. It’ll make him lucid.” I watched as Heracles held Chiron’s head to keep it still and forced the medicine down his throat.
   Chiron coughed, gagged, but Heracles didn’t let go. He stood up as Chiron screamed. Chiron’s entire body shook and Ocyrrhoe stepped backwards. He voided himself but then his breathing slowed. He didn’t get up but just looked around.
   She hurried over and stopped beside him, almost falling onto her chest so that she could rub her head against his mane. Father, father, what happened?
   I started translating and listened to what Chiron said. He had to know what happened, but he never blamed Heracles. Never even mentioned the source of the arrow. We all knew, but it was a sign of Chiron’s kindness that he never put any blame on Heracles.
   Late in the day, Ocyrrhoe suddenly fled. She couldn’t stand to see any more of what was happening to her father. I felt much the same, but I couldn’t leave my son. I remembered what Achilles had told me, repeating what Heracles would tell him.
   That night I gorged on grain. I knew I needed food to function; I even forced Heracles to eat. Chiron wouldn’t take anything, not food, not water. He was hot, almost too hot to touch. When Chiron lost consciousness, I questioned Heracles and figured out what Chiron had likely had made. It was indeed strong. I spent most of the night making as much of it as I could. Then I slept.
   Time after that was a blur. I know I fed Chiron some of the painkiller, and he drove himself to search out remedies he’d only heard rumours of. Somehow he got used to the pain, became lucid sometimes on his own. Heracles and I went with him, helping him; usually Heracles ended up carrying him. Through the winter we traveled to hidden valleys, quiet mountain streams, forgotten stands of forest. Often we’d have to stop for days, waiting for my son to become strong enough to tell us what to do. I kept the painkiller handy, but Chiron usually refused it. It was too strong, and it was addictive. In sustained doses it would rapidly destroy the body. As though the poison wasn’t doing that already…
   I don’t know how Chiron kept going. Within a few weeks, he was only skin and bones. He had no strength, and needed Heracles and me to move him. He vomited up what little he ate; only his immortality kept him alive.
   Occasionally I saw Ocyrrhoe in the distance. She was always alone, never too close and never too far. I tried to catch her a couple of times, but she fled.
   Summer passed into fall and then winter. My antlers fell off again. We proceeded further north into wild mountains. The land was rugged, often more stone than dirt. Once we were forced to shelter in a cave for a month due to a snowstorm. Heracles ate well, but I couldn’t eat meat and eventually had to become an owl and eat scraps. Heracles didn’t say a word. Given his parentage, I wasn’t surprised.
   It was late spring when I heard a distant scream of pain that echoed through the valleys and off the cliffs. I knew who it was.
   With Heracles’ help, I fed Chiron half of the remaining painkiller and waited for the light of wisdom to return to his eyes. Slowly it did, slower than it had before. He needed a stronger dose, but I couldn’t afford to give it to him. It would cause too much other damage.
   “Father?” he whispered. This was the first time he’d called me ‘father’ since he’d first accepted it.
   “There’s a way out. A way to end the pain.”
   His hands grasped me, his touch light as a feather. “There is… no… no… way…”
   That was when the inhuman scream echoed down, as it did every morning.
   “Chiron. You can give up your immortality. You can die. It’s the only way.”
   “No… no…”
   I wanted to grab him to make him listen, but I was afraid he’d break. “Have you heard of Prometheus?”
   “Prometh… etheus?”
   “One of the Titans. He stole fire from Zeus to give to humankind. Because of that, Zeus chained him to a cliff. Every day, an eagle rips out his liver and eats it. Zeus said that Prometheus would only be freed if an immortal gave him his immortality.”
   “No… no…” Then he lapsed into unconsciousness.
   What should I do? I knew what would happen, both from the myth and from what Achilles had told me, but I couldn’t see how to get there from here. Maybe Chiron just needed some time to think about it—as though he could think, through his fever.
   “Heracles, watch him. If he wakes up, talk some sense into him. There’s no other way. I’m going to talk to Prometheus—maybe the Titan has some ideas.”
   “I’ll beat them out of him!”
   “You have to stay with Chiron. You have to protect him.”
   “Yes… you’re right.”
   Clambering to my hooves, I said, “If I’m not back in three days, take Chiron towards the sound. Towards Prometheus. When you’re there, feed him the rest of the potion.” Then I bounded off.
   I moved around splashes of fallen and shattered rock, over deep rips in the bones of the mountain. Each time the moans and sobs got louder. I followed them through a deep crack in the side of a sheer cliff. Turning a corner, I saw a huge drop of blood, as big as a cup, splatter on the rock in front of me—rock which I realized was only stained red and brown. I looked up, and…
   There was Prometheus. He was massive, at least 20 metres high. Huge chains of glistening metal pierced his wrists and ankles, confining him to the rock, and a huge eagle had its claws dug into his waist as it tore into his flesh to get at the liver.
   He looked down at me. “Stephan!” he boomed out. “I’ve been waiting for you. Both you and Chiron.”
   Did all the immortals know me? “You know that Chiron is dying?”
   “I’ve always…” he winced as the eagle shoved its beak into his chest, “…known.”
   I looked up at him. His face was proud, noble, even when wracked by pain. His hair was golden, falling down his back almost to the ground. Otherwise he was naked.
   “And I… know what happened to you,” he went on. “We immortals know all; we know everything. We know… all that’s knowable.”
   Another cup/drop of blood fell to the ground followed by a huge hunk of flesh; I wrinkled my nostrils from the stench. He was still looking at me, expectantly, waiting for something.
   “Prometheus, why?”
   “Why? Why the eagle? You know why.”
   “Why couldn’t I save him?”
   “Ah! The… free will question.”
   I moved out of the way of another chunk of flesh.
   “Ahhhhhhhhhhhh!” At that point the eagle ripped out a big chunk of his liver, and flapped a short distance away. Blood gushed out and Prometheus’ body writhed. Slowly, the fit passed. “I repeat… We immortals know everything. We know everything that’ll happen… We know every decision that will be made. All of our life is an eternal chain that our consciousness can fly along… alighting on any single point at will. From our beginning, when we shucked our mortal coils, we knew everything that would happen.”
   It sounded insane; pondering what he’d said, I could feel a headache coming on. “But… if you know your whole life, and can experience whatever bits of it you want, then why are you experiencing this?”
   “I have to at least once!”
   And knowing this was to come, he’d chosen this fate? Impossible! “Then there is no free will.”
   “I didn’t say that! Free will exists, but we know what choices will be made.”
   “I don’t—”
   “You knew what was going to happen to Chiron when Heracles came, correct? You made a decision to try and save him. You asked him not to go. You asked Heracles to leave the arrows behind. All that, even though you knew what would happen. That was free will. You choose your actions: Even though the end result was known, you chose what you would do. Free will.”
   “Fine! If I have this free will then why couldn’t I save him!?”
   “You couldn’t because you didn’t. When you fought Achilles, you knew he’d beat you. And yet you still fought. Why?”
   How’d he know..? “I fought because I had to. I fought because I had hope.”
   “You didn’t have hope. You knew that Achilles would be victorious. So, knowing that, why did you choose to fight him?”
   “You made your choice, even knowing the result. You exerted free will, even though you knew it wouldn’t make any difference.”
   The eagle clambered into the wound and pecked around inside looking for the last bits. Prometheus screamed again and I waited until the eagle, now drenched in blood, clambered back out. It gulped down a big hunk of liver.
   “We all have free will. We make choices, and through those choices prove we have free will.”
   “That doesn’t make any sense! Everything is fated! How can there be free will!?”
   “Stephan, you make choices. That’s free will. You’ll learn.”
   Having eaten its snack, the eagle carved its way back into Prometheus’ body to finish today’s job. Blood and flesh dribbled out of the titan's body, splashing on the rock. Again Prometheus moaned. Finally the bird made its way out.
   “Please bring Chiron, Stephan. Please… bring him.”
   I turned and left, wincing as Prometheus screamed out behind me.
   I made it back to Chiron by nightfall. He wasn’t any better. I told Heracles to go and hunt some food while I made a fire. I assured him that I’d keep an eye on Chiron. The next day was no better. Heracles stood up and looked towards the screams; I knew what he was thinking.
   “Forget the eagle,” I told him. “If you go now, you’ll only deprive Chiron of dying. Go with Chiron when he’s ready. Help Chiron give his immortality to Prometheus. Then you can kill the eagle and set Prometheus free. After 30,000 years, another day won’t hurt.”
   “This isn’t right!”
   “No, it isn’t. But it’s fated! It’s the way things have to work. I hate it as much as you do.”
   He ended up going anyway. I don’t know what happened; I just know that he wasn’t able to kill the eagle, or free Prometheus, that day.
   At dawn the next day, I knew it was time to feed Chiron the last of the painkiller. It wasn’t until midday that the light of sanity shone in my son’s eyes.
   “Heracles, help me get him up.” Wordlessly Heracles did. I continued, “Son, we’re taking you to Prometheus. He’s waited for 30,000 years for you. Give him your life, let yourself die. You can’t go on like this!”
   Out of the corner of my eye I saw Ocyrrhoe but couldn’t let go of Chiron to fetch her.
   Chiron moved his lips but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. Even pressing one of my ears against his mouth was to no avail.
   It took Heracles and I most of the day to carry Chiron to where Prometheus was chained. Occasionally I heard hoofs in the distance and I hoped that it was Ocyrrhoe. The eagle was gulping down a big hunk of liver when we rounded the bend.
   “Chiron! You’ve come at last!” Prometheus boomed out.
   I watched Chiron’s lips move, but couldn’t hear a sound.
   “It’s the only way!” Prometheus called out. “It’s Zeus’ will. You can end both our pain. Please… Heal me…”
   Chiron’s lips moved again, and he stretched an arm out towards Prometheus.
   “Bring him! He must touch me!”
   Since I knew that the gift had to be freely offered, I wasn’t worried. “Heracles, help me bring Chiron to the cliff. They need to touch.”
   “Are you sure?”
   “Yes. It is the will of Prometheus, of the Gods, and of Chiron.”
   He nodded.
   We carried Chiron to the edge of the cliff and I raised his arm to touch the titan’s foot. Hoofbeats echoed through the chasm, and I saw Ocyrrhoe galloping towards us just as Chiron and Prometheus touched.
   I felt my son’s body shudder, and then it collapsed. It fell apart and onto the ground, a pile of skin and bones without muscle or tendon or organ.
   Behind me Heracles drew his bow.
   I fell to my deer chest as Ocyrrhoe clattered to a stop. I picked up Chiron’s skull, only to feel the flesh melting off it.
   Behind me I heard the echoing boom of a massive body hitting the ground as Heracles killed the eagle with a single arrow through its heart.

Chapter 71
-= Ending the Cycle =-

   That night, Ocyrrhoe watched as Heracles and I built a pyre. Prometheus lit it with a touch and we all watched in silence as it burned. In the morning Prometheus helped us entomb the ashes, and then was gone. The three of us made our way back south.
   We didn’t talk much. There wasn’t much to talk about. Heracles was full of self-guilt—you’d think he’d be used to it by now—and Ocyrrhoe wasn’t much better. She was full of guilt for not being with Chiron. Her eyes were dark, cold. She didn’t care about anything anymore. I’d known what was going to happen. I’d done everything I could, or so I repeated over and over. Still… my son was dead.
   After about a week of quiet travel, we were near the source of a river which Heracles recognized as the Axios River. It flowed southeast, through Macedon and into the Aegean Sea. Heracles told us he’d been away from other things too long and was going to go south, and we were welcome to go with him. I declined, and Ocyrrhoe refused after I did; I just wanted to end the cycle, and the Axios would take me to fair Illium. There I’d kill Poseidon, and end this madness.
   After Heracles had left I turned to Ocyrrhoe. “Why’d you stay?”
   I don’t know, she nickered.
   “You could go and see your sister, tell her what happened.”
   Endeis? She snorted. Ever since she got married she’s refused to associate with the likes of beasts. She let her mother convince her of that. At least I was wise enough not to listen.
   “Doesn’t your mother deserve to know?”
   Khariklo!? She’s running around somewhere doing nymph things. I never understood what father saw in her anyway.
   “Maybe he was just lonely.”
   Maybe. She kicked the ground with a hoof. Stephan, is it wrong not to want to think anymore?
   I stopped dead from the shock of the question. “What..?”
   I’ve known so much pain. I’m tired of it. I just want to forget. Please Stephan, please make me forget.
   I stared at her.
   You’re the creator of my race, the first mother. You can do it. You can take away my intelligence, my memories. You can take it all!
   That night I refused. She followed. Almost continuously she asked me, begged me. For a week this continued. She was relentless.
   One day I’d had enough. “Ocyrrhoe! Stop!”
   Stephan! I don’t want to remember!
   “Shut up! I’ll… I’ll do it. It’s wrong, but if you’re sure it’s what you want…”
   Yes! she screamed.
   “I don’t know if I can.”
   I trust you.
   Like so many others had… “Fine. Fine!”
   Please do it now. Please.
   “You’re sure?”
   Yes! Haven’t I asked you enough!?
   I looked at her, looked at the fire in her eyes. I’d only seen that fire before Zeus had transformed her. Could I leave her with that? I sighed. “I’ll try.”
   What do I do?
   “Lie down in front of me.” She did, and I lay down facing her. “Close your eyes.” She did. “Don’t move.” Swallowing I reached out with my hands and placed them on either side of her head, below her eyes. I closed mine. How the hell was I going to do this? I didn’t want to destroy everything in her mind; just the memories, not the personality, not the fire. Maybe… I reviewed my own memories of the time just before I’d been reborn into the Dineh realm, what it was like to fight the other spirits, take their experiences…
   And then I felt her memories pouring into me: Her birth, her distant mother and sister, her father, my father, through our youth. The shock of the change, the pain, the anguish, the terror that I hadn’t done the right thing! The shame as I fled, the horrible, horrible enduring shame. My grandfather had been so strong. He’d done what was right. Oh Zeus, I’d failed him, I’d failed my father, my grandfather. How could I?
   And then… the flow stopped.
   I opened my eyes and saw her head, eyes closed, quietly waiting. Had it worked? “Open your eyes.”
   They flickered open and became full of fire, full of life. Thank you, Stephan! Thank you!
   “Do you remember anything? Your name?”
   My name? Why would I have a name? Are you going to give me one?
   I thought about renaming her ‘Ocyrrhoe’, and decided not to. She had what she wanted; she’d regained her fire. That name would only cause problems.
   I jumped up to my hooves and she followed me. She ran around, exploring the world as though it was a new place.
   “Go, child! Go and live your life!”
   Thank you, Stephan! Thank you!
   She leapt into the air, kicking out for the joy of it, and then she landed.
   I couldn’t help but smile at her antics. At least somebody was happy… I watched her race off.
   She had freedom. I had nothing.
   After a while I turned away and continued towards my fate.

   I traveled slowly, avoiding people. It wasn’t difficult, and somewhat relaxing. There wasn’t much to eat until I got out of the mountains and into the Sea of Grass. I was never completely happy there; the lack of cover made me nervous. I forced that down. Traveling slowly, I stayed near the sea. Whenever I saw Scythians, I fled.
   A year passed. My antlers grew and fell off and grew again. One day I was walking along edge of the sea and noticed a glinting in the water. Curious, I walked closer, waves splashing my lower legs.
   As I was half expecting, it was the sword of my Scythian father. I picked it up and looked around. Was this where I’d slain Ephebus? It didn’t look familiar… but there the sword was. I thought about throwing it back. Then I stopped myself.
   For the first time in over a year, I made fire that night, gathering dried dung from near the freshwater pool I’d stopped at. I still had a leather pouch of supplies from when I’d left Chiron’s cave, and soon a fire was burning. I still had the Cretan knife that Spider Woman had given me—in a new scabbard, of course.
   Lying close to the fire, I enjoyed the unaccustomed warmth whilst I examined the sword. It was pitted, worn, but its beauty was still plainly visible. I just needed some tools to clean it, and it’d be as good as new. How long had it lain in the Black Sea?
   “It’s been waiting for you, Stephan. Your family found it long ago, and passed it from father to son until it came to you.”
   Leaping to my hooves I spun around. There was a man walking towards the fire, dressed in the rough wool of a builder, but with glowing golden hair and eyes. I could smell clay dust on him… “Apollo?”
   A bundle appeared in his hand and he tossed it to me: it contained polishing cloth and a variety of metal files. Then I saw a plain leather scabbard flying through the air towards me and I almost caught it as it thudded into the ground. It wasn’t fancy, but instead looked very old and very plain.
   “I don’t think you need the polished ostentation I gave you last time.” With that, a log appeared, along with a skinned pig roasting over the fire. It turned by itself.
   Spreading the tools out on the ground, I pulled out a rough file and began cleaning and sharpening my father’s blade. No, it was my blade. “I wouldn’t speak too much of ostentation if I were you, Apollo.”
   He laughed. “I’ve worked long and hard for King Laodemon! I deserve a little relaxation.”
   I frowned. “How goes the work?”
   “Don’t worry, Stephan. We’ll still be there when you arrive.”
   I sighed and put down my sword and the file. “Apollo, why are you here?”
   “Why? Just thought I’d say hello—give you a couple of things you needed. I like the new look; Artemis might not, though.”
   “Probably not,” I responded dryly.
   “Stephan, I’m glad your burning anger is gone. Its absence makes you a much nicer person.”
   I turned away from him and looked into the dancing flames. Grease was starting to drip into them and sizzle. “As though you didn’t know.”
   “Stephan, I know you’re bitter—”
   “Bitter? Bitter!? About the fact that nothing I do has any meaning? That everything I’ve done has been known, planned for, and taken advantage of!? No, I’m not bitter at all!”
   Apollo sighed and then remained silent for a while before answering. “Alright, most of your anger is gone. Stephan, that is not and never has been true.”
   “Then how come you, all of you, know! You know what I’m going to do, you’ve helped me do it. And knowing you Olympians, you’re betting on it!”
   “Stephan! Shut up for a second and listen!”
   I turned my head to face him. I wasn’t sure if I wanted him to slay me or not.
   “You knew that Chiron, your son, was going to die. You’d already been there when the arrow hit him. Correct?”
   “Yes,” I snapped.
   “Did that knowledge affect the choices you made?”
   “Of course it did!”
   “Did that knowledge only allow you to choose one single path?”
   “It—!” Had it? Once I saw my son, I knew I was going to stay with him; I knew I’d try and save him. And, I knew that I’d fail. “I could have chosen differently. I, I guess I could have left him. But there was no way that I would have! So… yes.”
   “Did it, Stephan? Did it really? You chose to stay with your son.”
   “Of course I did!”
   “Was staying with your son the only choice it was physically possible for you to make?”
   “It…” I’d sworn to always be honest with myself. Had it been the only possible choice? I could have left; fleeing was an option. Not one I would ever have chosen, but an option. “I guess… other choices were possible.”
   “Stephan, before you came back to see your son, did you make your decisions at random, or did you make them as a best-guess solution, using all the facts you knew to achieve your desired aim?”
   I looked at him and slowly worked through the meaning of that statement. He sounded like one of my teachers in psychology! But I’d never had a teacher in psychology… ah. This was one of the memories I’d absorbed in the spirit realm. Regardless of the source, the conclusion was true. “Yes, I did. Anybody does, at least if they’re sane. Nobody does anything without a reason.”
   “Did you have free will before Coyote sent you back?”
   “Of course—” Had I? Had I had any free will after I received the prophecy. Did I have free will before I received the prophecy? Or did the future existence of the prophecy lock my entire life into a fixed course? “I… I don’t know.”
   “You’ve worked it out, haven’t you? You’re wondering if your entire life has been a programmed event because at one point you received a prophecy.”
   Mutely I nodded.
   “The real question to ask is this: If time travel is possible—and you must know that it is—then is time immutable? And if time is immutable… does anybody have what you used to consider free will?”
   Was my life a lie? Was everybody’s life a lie? Was it all some kind of, of demented story created by some supreme being for its amusement?
   “Stephan, we all make decisions based on what we know. Foreknowledge can affect those decisions. Those decisions we make are made for good and logical reasons. We choose to make those decisions of our own free will. The fact that the result of that decision is already known, has always been known, does not change the fact that the choice was made of our own free will.
   “Of your own free will.”
   I just looked at him.
   “Remember that, Stephan. Never forget it; it’ll keep you sane. It keeps me sane. And now…” The pig stopped turning. “…supper is ready.”
   I snorted. “Just like a god. Food for him, nothing for anybody else.”
   “Excuse me?”
   “I can’t eat meat—”
   Apollo rolled his eyes. “Stephan, you couldn’t eat meat. When Coyote sent you here, he modified you. You’re an omnivore. Are you telling me that you’ve never… of course not. Why would you have?”
   And of course Coyote had never told me! That’s why when I was an owl I didn’t mind mice as much. I could hear him in my mind whispering, Gotcha! And even if Apollo was lying, what did I have to lose? If I couldn’t eat it, then Apollo was probably the best person to have nearby. I drew my knife to slice off a slab and…
   Apollo handed me a bronze fork.
   I jabbed the fork in with an irate snort, and cut off a slice. I held it to my mouth, my nostrils quivering at the scent; it wasn’t bad. I blew on it for a bit and then carefully took a bite. Teeth I never knew I had dug in and chewed it up and it went down well. It tasted odd, far too greasy, but it wasn’t bad.
   “There you go. Enjoy!” Apollo said, talking around a slice of his own.
   We didn’t talk much, just ate. By the time the moon rose, all that was left was bones and scraps of flesh. Getting up, I walked over to the pool and took a long drink. When I finished I turned back to Apollo, who had an open skin of wine in his hand.
   “Apollo? Did I do the right thing? For Ocyrrhoe?”
   “Did you?” He turned away and looked at the rising moon. “Is she happier now?”
   “She was when I last saw her.”
   “Then you did the right thing.”
   I closed my eyes, remembering. Then I opened them and asked, “But why does it seem so wrong?”
   “Stephan, do the Skinwalkers seem wrong to you? Of course they do. Ocyrrhoe made her choice, for her own reasons. We may not agree with them, but we must respect them. She’s happy, now; what more can anybody ask?”
   “I don’t know.”
   There wasn’t much conversation after that. I worked on the sword a bit while Apollo watched the stars and drank. Then, yawning, I went to bed. When I awoke, Apollo was gone. But in his place was a mare.
   Blinking the sleep out of my eyes I stared at her. I recognized her. “Anarcharax?”
   Stephan? That you? No look, but smell.
   Before I realized it my arms were around her neck and tearless sobs wracked my body. “I’m sorry. So so sorry…”
   “I left you! I let you die alone!”
   Not dead.
   “No, of course not.” Slowly I unwrapped my arms from around her and stepped back.
   She was old—very, very old. Her hide was flecked with white. But she was healthy, there were no wounds.
   And then I remembered the cairn I’d found on the way to fair Illium. Phillipa told me that a centaur had buried a horse there. Why? Because he’d wronged the horse… There was, could only be, one explanation:
   Anarcharax had come to spend her last days with me before death.
   “Anarcharax, why are you here? Where have you been?”
   Apollo cared me. Sent me. I asked.
   “It was your choice?”
   My choice! You my mother! I stay!
   I snorted a laugh. At least her personality was still there! “Come along, then: We have a long way to go.”
   I not leave. You not leave.
   “No, Anarcharax, I won’t leave you. I wouldn’t dare.”

   We travelled slowly. I let Anarcharax set the pace; I never rushed her. Apollo would have known she would be with me, and he’d told me I would arrive in time, so I knew it had to happen. Just like I knew that I would slay Poseidon and become him. And then I would slay my past self. Each night I worked on the sword a bit, filing, cleaning, polishing; over time, I gave it back its warm glow.
   We rounded the Black Sea in midsummer, and approached the Bosporus by fall. My antlers were full grown by then. Anarcharax grew weaker. We skirted a village which I knew was… would be? …it was Phillipa’s village, at any rate . Stopping, I looked at it from a distance. At this point, Achilles would be nearly twenty. How old was he at fair Illium? Was Phillipa there right now, a child not knowing the horrors that awaited?
   When I woke up the next day… Anarcharax didn’t. She’d died in her sleep; a quiet, peaceful death. Slowly I gathered wood for a fire. I burned her. Somebody must have seen the smoke, and come to see what was going on. He was nervous—after all, he’d never seen anybody like me before. I just stared at the fire.
   “Are you man, beast, or god?” he asked.
   What was I? I was doomed. But he deserved an answer. Was I a god? Could a god make all the mistakes I had? “I’m a centaur.”
   “But I thought centaurs were like men and horses.”
   “Most of us, but not all.”
   We watched the fire for a while. “What are you doing?”
   “I’m sending a friend on her way,” I motioned to Anarcharax, whose form could still be made out through the fire. “I wronged her years ago, and she deserves no less.”
   “But… she’s a horse.”
   “Yes. She was.”
   He watched for a while and then left, probably thinking that all centaurs were a little bit crazy. I didn’t care. The fire burned down to smoldering coals, and I went to sleep.
   In the morning I buried the ashes and bones with rocks, the biggest I could lift. She deserved to rest. As that took most of the day, I again slept there that night. In the morning I turned to fair Illium.
   It was time to end the cycle.
   It was two days before I reached the ridge overlooking the plains. So much blood would be spilled here… but it was quiet, now. In the distance, I saw fair Illium and its walls. All was done except for a short section still surrounded by wooden scaffolding. For a while I watched.
   For rebelling against him, Zeus had sentenced Apollo and Poseidon to serve King Laodemon of Troy. King Laodemon hadn’t known they were gods; he ordered them to build walls for his city. They’d brought King Aeacus to help, because of a prophecy that if the walls of fair Illium were built only by gods, they would never fall. Gods don’t like things like that. Ultimately, King Laodemon would refuse to pay the gods, which is why Poseidon and Apollo were on the side of the Acheans. Eventually, Apollo would switch sides after Achilles desecrated one of his temples.
   In the late afternoon, I walked down to drink from a stream and waited. The sun set; the workers retired to their tents outside the city. I waited until the moon was high in the sky, patient, knowing what I was going to do. That was when Apollo appeared beside me. I wasn’t even surprised.
   “Hold on,” he said. “I’ll take you to Poseidon’s tent. Our work on the walls is done, now it’s up to King Aeacus to finish them.”
   I held his hands tightly and closed my eyes. Wind howled past me, my hooves hung in the air. And then I was on land.
   “You can look now: He’s in that tent.” Apollo pointed at the tent right in front of me and then walked away, his hands slipping out of my grasp.
   I looked at the tent. Do I want to do this? Do I have any choice? Is this free will?
   Maybe I’d know when the deed was done.
   Carefully, quietly, I drew the tent-flap open. Drawing my sword, I ducked my head, stepped inside, and pulled the flap closed behind me. I waited for my eyes to adjust to what little light there was. Soon I could make out that there was one person in the tent, asleep on a pile of mats. Was it Poseidon? Of course it was: Why else was I here? But there was no way to be sure until I did the deed… I silently moved until I was standing over him, my head and upper body low to keep my antlers from scraping the roof.
   I chose my target carefully, a spot away from any major organs in his chest. Then, in one swift action, I shoved my sword through the man’s left kidney. Hopefully my Scythian father was resting easier now. Then I let myself fall upon Poseidon, holding him tight against me, making sure the sword moved with every breath I took.
   He awoke screaming. He saw me and panic filled his eyes, his cries choked to silence. A warm darkness oozed down his side, soaking into my fur.
   “Poseidon, if you try to leave, I’ll go with you. There is only one way to stop this pain. You know it, and you know what you’re going to do. We’re touching. I’m ready. Give me your immortality, your power, and I’ll heal you.”
   He glared at me with hatred and terror.
   “Or not. Resist, and the pain continues. It will continue for as long as it takes. You know what’s going to happen.”
   And then his mind, his immortality, his power—everything he is and was—poured into me.

Chapter 72
-= Changing the World =-

   It was a flood, a tidal wave, a deluge—infinitely more vast than the infinitesimal trickles of power I’d received when I killed a Skinwalker. It was too much! I struggled with my will, pressed against it, somehow managed to force it back. I sealed the dam and only let a little through.
   And still it was too much.
   I knew everything then. Everything.
   People were coming because of Poseidon’s scream. My body flowed and looked like he had. I’d made a promise; an instant of will and Poseidon, now mortal, was healed. Then I hid him away in a cave, sealed it, and locked him into stasis until I was ready to give him his power back.
   A part of me told the guards who’d come that it was only a bad dream. They went away. But most of me was finally realizing what had happened—what this place was, and what I was meant to do.
   Humanity had evolved. It had learned more, and enhanced its abilities more and more. The rate of change had been an accelerating curve with no end in sight. One day on Ceres, an experiment broke into another reality, different from ours. It was examined, quantified, and studied. This reality had different rules than ours; in it, sentience could exist as a thing unto itself, without any physical substrate. It was called ‘noöspace’ because in that reality, disembodied minds were possible… but no minds of any sort, embodied or otherwise, actually did exist there. And this noöspace overlapped our reality everywhere; in fact, any sentient mind—any sufficiently complex neural activity whatsoever—could be treated as a kind of extension of noöspace.
   Over a week this was revealed to all the enhanced neural gestalts. Each gestalt was a group of humans, AIs, and enhanced animals that had bonded together so that the members were no longer individuals, but instead, part of a single greater being. Noöspace could support infinite, literally infinite, intelligence and knowledge; it offered a new frontier, as humanity’s machines were bumping up against realspace’s ultimate physical limits for computing power. The gestalts voted on it, and noöspace was linked into the worldnet. The gestalts expanded further, grew as they needed to grow, each taking parts of the other. Concepts that had never been understood before suddenly made sense; that knowledge led to new senses, new explorations, and yet newer discoveries.
   In an eyeblink the process accelerated to infinity.
   Time and space became meaningless. The gestalt entities’ existence became eternal; each gestalt entity had always existed, would always be present, from the beginning of Time to its uttermost end. Each gestalt entity’s personal timeline exploded in both directions, expanding outwards to the opposite ends of Time. This made no sense in terms of pre-noöspace physics, but like anything else, it was easy if one knew how.
   And the gestalt entities did know how. They knew everything. There was nothing more to discover.
   Humanity had attained absolute knowledge, and different people reacted to this truth in different ways. Some went mad, as much as that word can apply to a literally omniscient mind. Others created new realities out of noöspace—virtual realms that were set up as clockwork puzzles and then abandoned. Still others worked their will on other planets in realspace, created entire civilizations, and watched them grow. Even though they knew exactly what would happen in every instant, they still did it because they had done it.
   There were even some who wondered if it might be possible to shun the bad consequences of absolute knowledge, accepting only the good ones. I was among this group. We decided to conduct some experiments—set up a series of different ‘pocket universes’, each of which obeyed a different set of rules, and see how those rule-sets would play out. We were criticized by others, on the grounds that they already knew that our experiments would necessarily fail; we disagreed, pinning our hopes on the fact that certain aspects of Reality genuinely were unpredictable.
   Every experiment needs a control; ours was a duplicate of realspace, a clonal continuum which might or might not (and probably wouldn’t) deviate from the path taken by its original model. In addition, we chose to work with other rule-sets, namely those which governed certain universes that were mythological or fictional—the worlds of the Norse mythos, of Native American stories, and so on. We divided ourselves into teams, each team responsible for the creation of a single ‘realm’ of its own, and we laid down meta-rules so that no one team’s work would encroach upon that of any other. The single element shared by all our worlds was that each contained a ‘trickster figure’, an entity whose whole purpose was to break the rules. An afterlife being a feature common to a good number of the worlds we’d chosen, we built one out of noöspace; minds—souls—from any of our created worlds would perceive this afterlife, and respond to it, in whichever manner their native world’s rule-set dictated.
   I was the leader of the team which spun out the realm of mythic Greece.
   Our laboratory, all our teams’ laboratory, was a cavern beneath Santorini. In this place, the realspace/noöspace overlap was particularly strong—ideal for our purposes. There, my team created the world of the Illiad and Odyssey, of Zeus and Cronus, of the many metal-named Ages; another team constructed the Norse realm; a third, the world of ancient Egypt; and so on, and so forth. And when a team’s work was done, its created realm became eternal, existing from the beginning of Time to its uttermost end, just as the gestalt entities had become—would become?—anyway, they were eternal.
   Every experiment has results. Some of our results were encouraging; others… were not. Observing our created worlds, sometimes from within them and sometimes from outside, we found that our worst fears had been realized: Each realm, regardless of its governing rule-set, was essentially static. Unchanging. Dead. Each realm was a stage on which certain stories could play out; the events of those stories could and did occur, but nothing else could. And the people who acted out the events of those stories lacked free will, in that they were incapable of choosing to do otherwise. In my created Greece, Achilles could never not die at Troy; he could never refuse to go. Odysseus could never not wander for ten years.
   This was intolerable to me. What was the point of it all, if we were only going to swap out the straitjacket of absolute knowledge for a different straitjacket?
   Still, there were grounds for hope. While the stories we’d built our worlds on might describe the broad outlines of events and history in those worlds, at the same time there were also unforeseen variances in some of the less-important details. We, my fellow world-makers and I, we thought we knew what our error had been, and how to fix it; but in attempting to fix it, we made another:
   We forgot that the rule-sets of our created realms did not make any exceptions for us.
   The repair job was mine to do. What we’d all overlooked was that it required me to violate the agreements we’d laid down, agreements which prevented one team from interfering with another… and I was in a realm whose rule-set ruthlessly punished oathbreaking. Other members of my team managed to preserve my existence, but not without cost; when I came to my senses, I was in our realspace-duplicate control realm, believing myself to be one of its ordinary natives. Returning to my true self should have been easy, could have been easy. But even with the Furies wanting it to be easy, they were bound by their own word and the rule-set of the realm in which they lived. And thus the tangled convolution that I had to wander through. The pain, the torture, the punishment, the gradual re-acquisition of wisdom…
   Now it all made sense: The gods were part of my group—the Greek gods being part of the team which made the Greek realm, Coyote and Spider Woman being members of the Native American realm’s team, and so on. They’d all wanted to help me, but like the Furies, were constrained by the restrictions they’d chosen to accept.
   More: I was a god, too. I was the Cronus who had created the world, and now I was the Cronus who would break it and create a new one. And so, in a sense Chiron’s father was Chronos, a bad pun if ever I’d dreamed one.
   Our repair job would necessarily damage the realspace Earth; it was hard to see this as anything other than a mercy killing, however. Beyond the warped and twisted realities in this, our Santorini laboratory, the original Earth lay fallow. Quiet and abandoned. Low-level machines tended the buildings and mechanisms… but all sentience had gone elsewhere. So I got to work.
   Uncounted years passed in the mortal world as I dreamed, as I fought for the knowledge I needed, and struggled to keep the knowledge I feared from sneaking over with it. I put my father’s sword where Gryneos would find it; I decided how I would save the centaurs when I transported them beyond this mythic space/time; I moved to the time just before I killed my future self and did the deed. I did everything I remembered doing, and watched my spirit flee towards the Dineh mythic space/time. Listened to the eulogy written for me. And then I gave each centaur a choice: They could stay, live out their lives… or they could come with me to a new world. A world that would change them in some ways, but they’d be free of humanity. They would have wives, they could have children. I made this offer to all the centaurs—not just the ones I’d led to fair Illium.
   And I made the same offer to some humans, including Phillipa.
   I knew which ones would agree, and they did; I knew which would refuse, and they did, too. Then I exerted the power I’d hoarded, the little bits I’d retained whilst refusing the limitless flood I’d given up so long ago.
   The world shook, rocks shattered, the mantle heaved. The roof and walls of the cavern collapsed, falling outwards into rubble as the rock beneath lifted upward on a fountain of magma, rose above the surface. The floor cracked, broke apart, and exploded outward pressed by immense pressures. I fused each of the various realms with an appropriate portion of the realspace Earth.
   I took those who agreed and remolded them. I made the humans into centaurs, but not quite like any of the centaurs of Greek myth; I, we, all wanted something new, and it would be a mistake to leave any part of the old patterns untouched. So these new centaurs had fur all over their human bodies to match their horse bodies, and their faces stretched out a bit into a suggestion of a muzzle.
   I made my centaurs a unified being, not two disparate forms fused by myth into one.
   And then I left. My power, my regained knowledge, my magical immortality: I wanted no part of it ever again. So I returned it all to Poseidon and released him from his stasis.

*The Illiad, by Homer; English translation by Edward, Earl of Derby

Prologue -=- Chapter 1 -=- Chapter 2 -=- Chapter 3 -=- Chapter 4 -=- Chapter 5 -=- Chapter 6 -=- Chapter 7 -=- Chapter 8 -=- Epilogue

Home -=- #26 -=- ANTHRO #26 Stories
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